Finding A Higher Connection:
by Todd Warnke
When one audio friend says I really ought to listen to a product I nod, say "sure", and place it on an ever-growing recommendation list. When a second suggests the same product, it moves to a shorter list. But when half a dozen, in short order say, "Have you heard _____ yet?", I figure it's time to make a phone call. Which is why I found myself on the phone to the folks at Acoustic Zen.
Although a new company, Acoustic Zen has a buzz in the audio world of Harry Potter proportions. The major reason is due to founder, Robert Lee. Several years back Lee was co-founder of Harmonic Technology, which quickly established itself with a mature and extremely high-value line of wire. Since Lee was head designer at HarmTech, when he left to head his own company many in the industry looked forward to what he would do on his own.
The AZ line is built around "Zero Crystal" wire technology. According to AZ, zero crystal wire is, "... selected from runs of unforged long-grain continuous crystal wire. Each Acoustic Zen interconnect and cable is crafted from extremely thin, highly refined grades of pure silver and copper wire. The pure silver and copper wire selected for use is comprised of single-crystals that are more than one hundred and twenty-five meters in length. Acoustic Zen's core selections are "zero crystal" subsets of extremely long single-crystal grains".
AZ claims that among the benefits of their hyper-pure, thin wire is the ability to "eliminate" skin effect. Other AZ design goals include, "...tonal accuracy... dynamic truth and impact... image placement... low level sonic resolution... soundstage palpability... frequency coherence... (and) time domain precision". Lee feels that the only way to reach these goals is by using his unique combination of 100% "zero crystal" wire and topology. Further, each wire is hand made and individually tested to assure compliance with design goals. Hand construction also allows AZ to sonically match both your system and desired sound. A call to AZ with details will result in just such a custom wire.
At root, however, I care less for design parameters, white papers and construction techniques than for results. See, I'm an Ellington guy at heart. You know, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing. So, let's dispense with the preludes and get down to it. How do these things sound?
Acoustic Zen sent a full wire set up, two pair of the Silver Reference interconnects (one for DAC to pre-amplifier and one for pre to power amplifier), an MC Squared=Zen digital cable, a run of Satori Shotgun speaker cable and a couple Krakatoa power cords. So, as seems to be the norm around here, the review was a tad complicated as each type of cabling had to be listened to by itself, and then in various combinations with other AZ cables. Of course, the finale included wiring all the AZ stuff into the system at once. To simplify things, let's talk about each type of cable separately and then I'll wrap this thing up talking about the sound of my system with all AZ cabling.
Oh yeah, one more piece of preliminary information, my reference wire setup. The usual digital cable round here, in this review used to connect a Cary CD-303 or a Pioneer Elite DVL-91 to my Dodson DA-217 MK. II DAC, is a custom version of the Audio Magic Illusion. With twice the silver of the standard Illusion, it's a hefty piece. It's also the most neutral coax I've heard, although it does impart just the tiniest bit of added smoothness. If it had a retail, Jerry Ramsey of Audio Magic tells me it would go for at least $1,000. From DAC to pre-amp (First Sound Presence Statement) I usually use Cardas Neutral Reference. A steal at $500 a meter pair, George named this wire aptly as it is both a reference and exceedingly neutral. Designed to impart both a minimal and non-varying character regardless of length, the Neutral Reference has been in my system for almost as long as it's been available. From pre- to power amplifier (either a Blue Circle BC6, Atma-Sphere M-60 MK. II or Manley Neo-Classic) I use either a second run of Neutral Reference or Audio Magic Illusion. The Illusion interconnect shares a family sound with digital coax, being slightly smooth but also very evenhanded. It digs deeply into recordings and presents them with great equanimity. Speaker wire (connecting to either Merlin VSM-SEs or Soliloquy 6.5s) is Cardas Golden Cross ($1,428 5 foot pair), or on the odd occasion, Neutral Reference ($960 10 foot pair). The Golden has more body than the Neutral, with greater image density and detail retrieval as well, while the Neutral is, by the smallest margin, more open up top. AC cords on the transport and DAC are JPS Labs Digital AC models, while the pre-amplifiers (the First Sound Presence Statement is a monoblock design) typically use MITs. The amplifier (or amps when using the Manleys or Atma-Spheres) gets fitted with ElectraGlide cords ($1200 each).
With That Out of the Way, Let's Get Swapping!
I'm going to start at the top. The MC Squared=Zen digital coax, after a week long run in the office system, was the first AZ piece to go in the main system. A more auspicious debut could not have been picked. Over the last 7 or 8 years I've run a host of digital cables through the system, but only two have stayed. First, the Ensemble Digiflux, and then the Audio Magic. And since the Audio Magic arrived I've felt no need to even mess with digital cables. As a matter of business I've tried other cables, but never out of a need to get more, feel more or to address a perceived lack. So I was absolutely blindsided by what the AZ coax did when I put it in the system. I hate to turn to cliché, but veils were lifted, albeit thin ones. With a, by high-end standards, cheap sticker of $298, I had no expectation that this cable would both open the stage, and eliminate the smoothness of the Audio Magic cable, all while preserving harmonic integrity across the range. But this is exactly what happened. Not satisfied with my initial impression, I swapped transports and tried comparing the Audio Magic and AZ cables again. Same result. Then I swapped DACs. Same result.
In detail, here's what I heard. With the AZ coax in place the top end opened up in much the same way that replacing tired tubes in a pre-amp opens your system back up. And in a like manner, this was accomplished without brightness, frequency emphasis, or glare. Cymbals, unlike Oakland, had more there there. More light and more burnished metal. I also heard more leading edge bite, but without grain, grit or harshness.
Detailing was also more explicit across the frequency spectrum. Bass, while no deeper, was tighter and faster. It was also a touch drier as well, but not dangerously so. Mids were rich, full of nuance. Dynamically, things were tighter, faster and cleaner. Staging was qualitatively equivalent with my previous setup, that is, superb, but of slightly different configuration. That is, the stage expanded a touch, side to side, and contracted, front to back, by an equal amount.
The combination of greater top end, better detail, and not qualitative drop off anywhere else, is impressive performance. In all, the MC Squared=Zen struck me, not just as a great bargain, but as the best overall digital coax I've heard. This is a piece of wire that is not leaving my system.
From the sublime we trip back a little closer to earth. When I first placed the Silver Reference interconnects in my system I placed a single run between the pre and power amps. These cables had several weeks of intermittent use in my office system and so I presumed they were broken in. I was wrong. All the air, life and sparkle in the system disappeared. After an hour of playing with no change, I was so worried that something had gone horribly wrong that I replaced the old interconnect just to verify that the system was indeed working correctly. It was. So I returned the Silver Reference to the office system for another two week tour of constant duty. For their return engagement they started between the DAC and pre-amp, an easier place to replace should things not work out again.
This time it went far better. Many of the qualities I first heard with the digital cable were present with the Silver Reference. Besides a tighter and faster bass, the lower frequencies also showed a slight increase in tonal definition. Mids were fleshed out, with tonal and harmonic integrity. Highs picked up speed, even over the already fast Cardas Neutral Reference, although there remained a slight diminution of air.
Staging, another strong suit of the Neutral Reference, was also taken up a half-notch. Images took on greater presence with superb edge definition. Depth was slightly reduced but width expanded, just as I had heard with the digital cable. If there was a negative to the stage experience using the Silver Reference wire, it was that hall ambience was slightly attenuated.
Dynamically, the Silver Reference exceeded the Cardas wire on the macro swings, adding weight and impact to sudden musical passages, while not quite matching the Cardas wire on micro swings. Surprisingly, this did not take away from the sense of life the AZ wire brought to the system. I'm used to finding much of the illusion of real people playing real instruments in real space in the subtle, micro-dynamic range, and yet the AZ wire communicated all this in spite of not quite matching the Neutral Reference in this area.
The Silver Reference offered superb harmonic integrity as well, fully up to the elevated level set by the Cardas wire. As I referred to earlier, the bass had slightly greater tonal and hence harmonic definition. Mids showed equal skill, with vocals, especially, having very exact timbres. Highs displayed remarkable balance, being very fast and yet remaining grain free and smooth.
After listening to the Silver References for an extended period, their forte seemed to be in communicating the soul of music rather than the architecture of it. Put another way, the Silver References extract an amazing amount of information, but piece it together in a natural, free-flowing manner, such that while the shape of music is evident, more evident is the why of the music. If I were to lay this skill at the feet of one particular facet of the Silver Reference, it would be to their utter quiet and lack of grain. This quiet is something that I found across the entire range of AZ wire. AZ would have you think this is due to the "zero-crystal" wire, and I'm not going to disagree.
In all, I was pleased with the sound of the Silver Reference. The only step back from my reference wire was the slight drop in air. That and a slightly shallower stage. In other areas, macro dynamics, bass impact, and staging in particular, it was a solid step up.
The Satori Shotgun speaker cables are heavy-duty wires. With superb spades that accommodate both small and large binding posts with equal flair, and sporting dual runs, they look and are serious. After running them in for about a month (I did not want to repeat the interconnect experience), I brought them in the main system and hooked them up to the Soliloquy 6.5 speakers.
From the first note their bass power, control and definition was noticeable. Just as with the previous two AZ wires, the lower region was tighter, with superb pitch definition. Dynamically, bass had fuller weight and speed as well. With the 6.5 loudspeakers this was almost a hindrance as the Soliloquy loudspeakers need no help the bass power department. When I brought out the Merlin loudspeakers though, this was entirely a virtue.
Mids were tonally rich, with, once again, excellent definition and harmonic color. The extreme quiet I spoke of earlier was fully in evidence with the Satori wires. I suspect that this is what gave the treble what character it had, as air and stage slightly contracted with the Satori in the system. I believe now, that some of the treble information we call air is actually certain types of noise that may be eliminated by the hyper-pure wire used in the AZ line. It would then follow that some of the air and ambience we hear is a playback artifact, but I'm not sure I want to go that far, in part because the Cardas Golden Cross wire is also extremely quiet across the frequency spectrum and yet it manifests both more air around individual instruments and more hall ambience. Still, the differences in this area between these two cables, while audible, are far from night and day. I could easily adjust to either as a long term reference.
Dynamically the Satori spoke with a firm hand, making large swings very believable and imbuing small swings with life and breath. Unlike the interconnects, the stage retained the same dimensions as with my reference cable.
At roughly half the price of the Cardas Golden Reference wire I've used for several years, the Satori cable held up very well. I think the bass, especially the lower and mid bass, is touch prominent, but since it is also well defined, in most systems this is probably an advantage. I would also say that the Cardas cable has better midrange definition as well a slightly more accurate treble, although the difference here is more subtle and cumulative than black and white. Both cables naturally present abundant detail, and in wholly believable ways. They also share a similar dynamic footprint, with the Cardas edging the AZ in micro detail. As I said, wonderful performance for the Satori, and when price is taken into account, the Satori becomes a true high-end value.
I'm going to end the individual wire reviews with another AZ statement product. The Krakatoa power cords, in a word, are fantastic.
I've used ElectraGlide power cords for several years now, primarily because they are extremely quiet and have a truly beguiling bass. Everything else about them is excellent as well, although I have heard better cables in the mids. Still, as soon as I swap them out of the system I immediately miss their bass warmth, tonality, and power. And, with that missing sonic foundation, everything else above seems to sway precariously. So, once again, imagine my surprise when I put the Krakatoas in the system and felt no loss. In fact, just as with the digital cable, everything was a touch cleaner, better defined, and more harmonically correct. And, just as with the digital cable, the best description is that a thin veil was removed.
Starting with the strongpoint of the EG cord, the bass was slightly less warm, but also more vivid. Small, micro-tonal variations came through that previously were absorbed by the warmth of the EG cord, and yet there was no loss of bass extension. Moving up, mids were also more detailed and vivid. Highs also showed a similar shift.
Staging was better in all three dimensions, being wider, deeper and taller. Images had greater density and greater edge definition. Timing was also subtly improved. In fact, every single audio element, even including ease of use, was improved with the Krakatoa.
All Together Now
When it came time to string all this together I did have a small fear that the treble characteristics I had noted with several of the AZ products would add and pose a problem. I should not have. The sum of all the parts was a top end that was extended, quiet and lacked only a touch of ambience and air. Staging, another small concern, was similarly a non-issue. Depth was adequate, if slightly truncated, but not to the extent of becoming an issue. Width, on the other hand, was outstanding, as was image placement, density and layering.
Bass was as tight as a mother on her daughter's wedding day. It was also fully extended, superbly defined and tuneful. Mids were rich without becoming lush. And the whole setup was dynamic rocket. There is no doubt that these wires work well together.
I am impressed by the value offered by the entire Acoustic Zen line. Each product offers performance equal to or better than anything in their price range. And the digital cable, in particular, goes one further, by offering the best sound I've heard from a coax cable. At $298, this is remarkable. It gets a perfect 100 points on the value scale.
The interconnects are nearly as refined. $898 a pair is a serious investment, but they are certainly are worth it. With what seems to be a quality inherit to the line, they communicate the reasons for music as much as the way it is performed. They did deduct a touch of air, at least in my system, but not in an exaggerated manner. On a value scale they score a solid A with 92 points.
The Satori loudspeaker cables are also a high value product. Under $1200 for this level of sophistication, detail, control, and, especially, bass power, is in my experience, literally unheard of. Once again, there is a slight loss of air, but the overall sense of quiet and music making is superb. For half the money I found that the Satori delivered a surprising percentage of the sound quality of my reference Cardas Golden Cross. So, on the value scale these score a solid A+ with 95 points.
The Krakatoa power cords, along with the MC Squared=Zen digital cable, set a new performance standard 'round here. Fast, dynamic, powerful, extended and in control, like the digital cable, they score 100 points on the value scale.
Lastly, as a system, the AZ cables build on each others strengths without augmenting what small flaws they share. With a full set in place bass was wonderful, taut, deep and tuneful. Mids were rich, detailed and natural. Highs, while supremely quiet, were a touch recessed, but not egregiously so. Staging was wide and stable, although a tad shallow. Dynamically, the system felt like it had a well designed turbo installed as it had excellent micro swings and very powerful macro ones. In all, this is a very well thought out line that works well together. By all means, add it to your short list of must hear products.
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